Islamic State militants in Afghanistan stormed Kabul University on Monday as it hosted a book fair attended by the Iranian ambassador, sparking an hours-long gun battle and leaving at least 22 dead and 22 wounded at the war-torn country’s largest school.
Most of the casualties were students and there were fears the death toll could climb further with some of the wounded said to be in critical condition.
It was the second attack on an educational institution in Kabul in as many weeks.
The Taliban promptly issued a statement denying it took part in the assault, which came as the insurgents continue peace talks with representatives of Kabul’s U.S.-backed government, with the aim to help the United States finally withdraw from Afghanistan. Later in the day, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.
As the attack unfolded, students and teachers were seen fleeing the part of the campus where law and journalism schools are located, while hand grenades exploded and automatic rifle fire could be heard. Scores of Afghan special forces surrounded the campus, shepherding teachers and students to safety.
2nd recent attack by Islamic State
The interior ministry’s spokesperson, Tariq Arian, said there were three attackers involved in the assault, all of whom were killed in the ensuing firefight.
The Islamic State group said it targeted newly graduated “judges and investigators belonging to the apostate Afghan government” gathered at the campus, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terror-related online messaging.
The ISIS statement claimed only two of its fighters were involved, and posted their photographs, which conflicted with the Afghan authorities’ report of three attackers. The claim did not indicate whether ISIS intended to target the Iranian envoy or the book fair.
Last month, the Islamic State group sent a suicide bomber into an education centre in the capital’s Shia-dominated neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, killing 24 students and injuring more than 100. The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan has declared war on Afghanistan’s minority Shia Muslims and have staged dozens of attacks since emerging in 2014.
Five hours into the fighting at the university, sporadic grenade explosions and automatic weapons fire echoed down the empty streets surrounding the school’s fenced compound. Afghan troops stood guard.
Ahmad Samim, a university student, told journalists he saw militants armed with pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles firing at the school, the country’s oldest with some 17,000 students. He said the attack happened at the university’s eastern side, where its law and journalism faculty teach.
Afghan media reported a book exhibition was being held at the university and attended by a number of dignitaries at the time of the shooting.
While Afghan officials declined to discuss the book fair, Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported Sunday that Iranian Ambassador Bahador Aminian and cultural attache Mojtaba Noroozi were scheduled to inaugurate the fair, which would host some 40 Iranian publishers. Iranian state television reported the attack occurred but did not offer information on its officials.
Iranian diplomats have been targeted previously by attacks in the country and it nearly sparked a war between the two countries. In 1998, Iran held the Taliban responsible for the deaths of nine Iranian diplomats who were working in its consulate in northern Afghanistan, and sent reinforcements to the 950-kilometre-long border that Iran and Afghanistan share.
The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan has declared war on the country’s minority Shia Muslims and staged dozens of attacks since emerging in the region in 2014. A horrific attack earlier this year on a Kabul maternity hospital — also in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood — was blamed on the Islamic State group. In that attack, militants killed 25 people, many of them newborn babies and mothers.
Schools have also been targeted for attacks in the past as well. Last year, a bomb outside of the Kabul University campus gates killed eight people. In 2016, gunmen attacked the American University in Kabul, killing 13.
Taliban talks ongoing
Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even as the Taliban and a government-appointed negotiation team discuss a peace agreement to end more than four decades of war in the country. The talks in Qatar have been painfully slow and despite repeated demands for a reduction in violence, the chaos has continued unabated.
A U.S. deal with the Taliban in February set the stage for peace talks currently underway in Doha. The deal also allows for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
The architect of Washington’s agreement with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, returned last week to the region, citing deep disappointment at the escalating violence in Afghanistan. On Monday, Khalilzad was in neighbouring Pakistan, where he met with the powerful army chief. Few details of the meeting have been released but it is widely believed Khalilzad was pressing for Pakistan’s help to push the Taliban to agree to a reduction in violence.
Even though their political office is based in Qatar, Taliban leadership councils are located in Pakistan, with Islamabad being critical to pressing the insurgents into peace talks.
Though Khalilzad and the Afghan government have been calling for a ceasefire or at the very least a reduction in violence, the Taliban have refused a truce, saying a permanent end to fighting would be part of the negotiations.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry condemned Monday’s attack in Kabul, calling it an “act of terrorism” that was particularly “despicable as it targeted an institution of learning.” Last week, a suicide bomber attacked a religious school in Pakistan’s northwest on the border with Afghanistan, killing eight students and wounding more than 120.
Also on Monday, a vehicle hit a roadside mine in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, killing at least seven civilians, most of them women and children, provincial governor spokesman Omer Zwak said.
Original News : https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/afghanistan-attack-kabul-1.5785965?cmp=rss